“I come from the future,” he said. “North Africa is the future of Europe, and Palestine is the future of the whole world.”
And, when his sister immigrated to the United States of America, he wondered about the Coptic diaspora, and whether they are a kind of living museum, or a cultural refrigerator. Time has stopped for them. They’ve preserved the Egypt they left, two or three generations ago, in their intimate habits and private customs. They’ve practiced it in their closed communities and, over the phone, with relatives across the ocean. Their stagnation seems to be an integral part of their Americanization. It seems logical. Stagnation on the surface would also require the congelation of roots.
What does the world do as it comes to its end?
It gathers its shreds and what is left of its possible meanings, past, and gone, and frozen. It compiles them in files, cabinets and repositories, in a desperate attempt to find a future in the remnants of the past. The present becomes an obsession, a compulsion to archive.
And, amid the cacophony of crumbling, we hear nostalgia, soft and sweet.
In The Country of Last Things (1987), Paul Auster describes a nation that has been closed in on itself, abandoned with its inhabitants to their termination. As production stops completely and resources become scarce, violent disputes erupt, along with robbery, rape and assaults. And people eat one another. In such aggravated living conditions, it becomes clear to many that this is definitely the end. As a final way of amusing themselves, alone or in groups, they start inventing new creative ways to kill themselves.
Some perform an aerial flip as a final act, jumping off the top of a building, and missing the enthusiastic applause of passers by. Others run in groups, encouraging each other like sports coaches, especially those who are worn out — supporting and motivating to keep them running, until their cardiac muscles explode and they die, one after the other.
But Auster’s novel is not only about suicide. It is a story of the living amid all this death. And it is about their things. Boris Stepanovitch, one of the novel’s characters, deals in these last things. But Boris wasn’t selling them for their use or value, as much as for the stories he’d imbue them with. He’d recount tales about the pettiest of his merchandise, reminding his customers of the old times, when life was way better, so that they’d buy them from him, as if they were buying their past lives. A broken tea cup would fetishize a life when there were still wide balconies, on which a lady of irresistible beauty sat, drinking tea and listening to the tender words of her adoring poets.
The narrative holes that these last things reveal signify absences more than designating facts. And the things themselves, with their positive associations, become like black holes in the fabric of being.
What does the artist do in a world coming to its end?
Boris is a contemporary artist, a charlatan and a storyteller. He uses archival objects and the fissures of a tattered present to dazzle his clientele. He is also a precocious merchant. Apprehensive of the zeitgeist’s market and its needs, he knows how to manipulate its commodity balance, its supply and demand.
And, because an artwork is nothing but a black hole, around which the artist arranges his random details and events with the sole aim of presenting this existential crevice at its best, one might claim that the artist is luckier than the researcher. For the researcher attempts to fill the void of that black hole with what resembles scientifically based certitude, while the artist does what Boris does in The Country of Last Things: Out of his personal impressions, he forges a subject matter and a narrative that revolves around the existential black hole, and carries his views. In this way, the artwork becomes a trap; presented to its audience in stories that amuse them, and the mirror-hole sucks them into its void.
“You fell from your future,” he told them, “when your present was amputated from your past.” And they kept amassing their shreds and singing their songs of nostalgia.
And when his sister immigrated to the United States of America and sent him the papers to follow her, he said “No, I’ll stay here to watch the end. For maybe between two crumblings, I might glimpse a fleeting moment of the world to come.”